BF. William Empson and Japan

  The formal structure of Empson’s verse did not change noticeably in Japan or because of experience of Japan, but conceptual threads originating in the country and in his experience of Japanese aggression in China came to constitute an important part of his thought.  

From 1931 to 1934 William Empson lectured at Tokyo University of Literature and Science (Tôkyô bunrika daigaku) and the Imperial University at Tokyo, then after an interlude in Britain returned to East Asia in 1937. He believed he would take up a position at the National University at Peking, but arrived in that city to Japanese occupation, and with the faculty and students of the Chinese universities in exile fled into the interior. For the better part of two years Empson remained with the exiled universities as they convened classes in mountain villages and fled from the Japanese Army. His poems originating in these experiences, particularly those of The Gathering Storm of 1940 (9), constitute a compelling record of the period, and follow upon and enlarge theories he had set forth in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). Instead of the ambiguities inherent in literary texts, however, they address the ambiguities of race and nation, and a relation Empson could not help but perceive between aggression and beauty. In the earlier years in Japan he had developed a lively interest in the nô (see 8 and 19), and began a decade-long study of Buddhist iconography that resulted in a book-length manuscript, ‘Assymetry in Buddha Faces’ (see especially 6, 16, 21b2-5, and 26a), which to Empson’s lasting regret was lost in London during the war. His engagement with Japan and the Japanese was such, then, that ultimately one must take exception to Miner’s contention in Japanese Tradition (A25) that Empson was ‘really little different from a Kipling in his attempts to fit . . . Japanese experiences into a world-view and literary forms which he possessed before’ going to Japan. It is true that the formal structure of Empson’s verse did not change noticeably in Japan or because of experience of Japan (though the metaphorical leaps that characterise the earlier work become bolder and more nimble in Empson’s poems of Japan and the Japanese), but certainly more than for Kipling and arguably as much as for any writer under study here conceptual threads originating in Japan and experience of the Japanese in China came to constitute an important part of Empson’s thought, and the poems of The Gathering Storm are by any standard among his best.


All poems noted are reprinted in Collected Poems (14) and The Complete Poems of William Empson, edited by John Haffenden (London: Lane, 2000).





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